Exhibits: Terrible, Beautiful

Founded in 1863 as part of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, the Mutter Museum was created as an educational service for practicing physicians. Its enormous collection of bottled fetuses, skulls, wax replicas of diseased bodies, dissected tissue and Siamese-twin body casts was meant to give doctors a look at what they might face in the examining room and the operating theater. Today the museum serves the public, and its purpose, curator Gretchen Worden insists, is still "educational." Its superficial resemblance to a freak show is just that, superficial. And once you've had a good tour of the museum's admittedly ghastly inventory, you tend to agree. The Mutter teaches you indelibly how strange life can be, how unpredictable and various. But if you can't stop staring, you're in good company. "Mutter Museum" (Blast Books) collects the superb work of a distinguished group of photographers, including Rosamond Purcell, William Wegman and Joel-Peter Witkin, who have traveled to the Mutter repeatedly to photograph its contents. The results, sometimes ghastly, sometimes heartbreaking, are mysteriously mesmerizing, and together they compose--as museum exhibits and as photographs--a terrible beauty.

Worden and her associates are serious about what they do, but they're not pompous. There is nothing reverential about these photographs, and a good many are infected with what you might call graveyard humor. After all, most of them were taken originally for a series of calendars the museum issued starting in the early '90s. There's no room at the Mutter for euphemism or political correctness. "Some people get upset because we call Chang and Eng Siamese twins," says Worden, referring to the body cast of the 19th century's most famous conjoined twins. "But if anyone deserves the title, they do. They were Siamese twins. They were from Siam!" Worden wants people to look boldly at what's in the museum. "In the Mutter Museum, sometimes the objects seem to be looking at you," she writes in the introduction to the photo book. "And, sometimes, the objects seem to be you." This museum of human life gone haywire will revise and enlarge your idea of what it is to be human. Look at your own risk.